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Snow time

Fifty years after the publication of “The Two Cultures” Ted Nield wonders if there is a right kind of Snow.

Geoscientist 19.10 October 2009

CP Snow never lacked for eager scientific groupies"Not only is [Snow] not a genius, he is intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be… 'The Two Cultures' exhibits an utter lack of intellectual distinction and an embarrassing vulgarity of style." F R Leavis, 1962

This year marks the 50th birthday of The Two Cultures, the 1959 Rede Lecture by novelist, scientist and statesman Charles Percy Snow, and we commemorate it with a sideways and geocentric look at the idea by Mike Price, here.

I suppose because I have written about Snow in the past, I was asked to speak at the Rede Lecture’s 50th birthday celebration at the British Science Association in Guildford last month. There I was shocked to witness the fondness in which this malign piece of twaddle is still held by otherwise intelligent people. Those who do read the original lecture (as well as its predecessor New Statesman article (1956) and follow-up (A second look, 1963) will find it a curious experience. It is unbelievably dated, insular, parochial, badly argued, intellectually threadbare, and peppered with emotional leakage.

However, I believe that what saves the Rede Lecture as a cultural icon is that nobody has read it. So it not only retains its rallying power, but still conspires to render the world a worse place than it would have been had its author never published it.

It is not widely known that Snow regretted not going with his first instinct and calling his lecture The rich and the poor – highlighting a much more serious divide that the lecture mainly addresses. He chose instead to work out his personal issues - notably his hatred for a literary establishment who largely (and quite correctly) dismissed his 11 faux-profond Strangers and Brothers novels as tripe. These demons of the arts were bent on undermining the attempts of straight-talking Leicester grammar-school boys to better the lot of their fellow man. For shame!

The main problem with Snow is that many scientists like to agree with what he said, and love him for saying it. Snow flatters them into believing the absurd notion that somehow “science”(as defined only in English, note) is one half of something called “culture”, and that not knowing about it renders a person functionally illiterate in the modern world. What monstrous hubris! Every time I see a survey on public scientific ignorance I want to shout: “So what? Don’t you realise that everyone is woefully ignorant about everything, science included? Do you not see that there is much in that yawning chasm, the knowing of which would render one much greater service than the second law of thermodynamics? (The structure, history and constitution of one’s government, or the functioning of the legal system. For example - all vital knowledge, shared by almost nobody, and a good deal duller than science, to boot.)

Scientists should know enough to beware of any hypothesis that flatters. The problem is, being human, they forget this when they hang up their labcoats, and for the rest of the time are content to believe things just because they want to, like all us other fools. Far from celebrating Snow’s notion of “The Two Cultures” we need to leave it where it began, and where it only belongs - the school playground.